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Thread: PAF: the unHoly Grail.

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    PAF: the unHoly Grail.




    That’s right. I’m poking my finger right into the electrified outlet of the sacred PAF.

    Let me start by saying that, like everyone else, I have tones I prefer, tones I’m ambivalent about and there are tones that grate on me like fingernails on a chalk board. You do too.

    Ok, on to the poking.

    The thing that gives me the most pause about PAFs is their reputation for inconsistency. There are good ones, lots of OK ones, bad ones and, as I understand it, a relative few amazing ones.

    Let’s set the amazing ones aside for a moment (if only we could… ) . The bulk of PAF pups aren’t amazing. What is consistent about them is their inconsistency.

    The sticker on the bottom didn’t magically make them exceptional (save for their aftermarket price). Their manufacture was fraught with variables and their performance reflects this.

    I’m old enough to have had the chance to do the comparisons myself, but I didn’t get into guitars until long after the PAFs were gone and scattered and the legend born and bloated.

    So, I want to know. How many PAFs would a person have to audition to find the few good ones, not to even contemplate finding an exceptional pair?

    And that begs the next question. Have you personally done any comparing between multiple sets of PAFs? Did they all sound fantastic, or even the same? Seriously, I want to know.

    One more question. If it is true that PAFs are so variable in their tone and performance, doesn’t that kinda disqualify them from being a standard??

    The whole problem is, when someone says that this pup or that pup is “PAF like”, what I hear in my head is “inconsistent” or “unpredictable” or, more charitably, “somewhere on this scale of good, but no one can tell you exactly where”. That is, if they are comparing said pups to good or excellent PAFs and not the great horde of average or bad ones.

    How can PAFs be a standard when they are like a box of chocolates?
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    I think I am tracking you. Are you talking about Gibson (Seth Lover) made for GibsonPAF's of the 50's, or all pickups identified as PAF's. If you are talking about the latter, then yes, they are all over the place. If it is the former, I would not know how one could locate, much less demo enough original PAF's to quantify them, without using all the ridiculous metaphors of others from their demos. ???

    I like the conversation though. I personally have found that Duncan Seth Lovers and PRS 7's are the cats meow for coping that PAF sound. In fact I would have to take them over the originals, only because of price. The Seth's and the PRS 7's get it done!!! My hearing of PAF's was watching someone else try out a pair of the originals, and youtube videos and the like.

  3. #3
    I got into guitar playing in 1967, with my brother's '65 Gibson SG Special and P-90s. The guitar is still in my family.

    I was in bands beginning in 1965, starting on keys, and got to jam with a lot of musician friends over the years. Most of my friends back in the day played Fenders, because they were less expensive than Gibsons, but quite a number of friends played used (and new) Gibsons. So I got to hear and play a lot of guitars with original PAF pickups on their original instruments.

    I was around when folks started going to guitar shows and putting old PAFs into new guitars, and got to hear various examples. So while I don't claim to be expert in the pickup arena, I hope I've got enough experience with these pickups to at least point out a few things.

    Every guitar sounded and played a little different in the 60s, and the same is true now. While there were differences from pickup to pickup when new, it's not like they were large differences. However, being a 40-50 year old electronics part definitely makes the differences greater, due to factors like oxidation, magnet aging, whether the original guy spilled beer on them, etc. I believe that's where the concept of variability has come into the equation and has become something of a legend. But that variability is also true of other old pickups, amps, etc., that were less variable when new.

    When I hear the word, "PAF," I hear BB King, Clapton, Page, Freddie King, Duane Allman, and guys I played with over the years, and of course the list goes on and on. There's a tremendous range of expressiveness that the guitars with those pickups were part of, and to my way of thinking, they deserve their reputation. It's true that some survived over the years in a great way, some did not. But that's true of most things over time.

    In '93 when I got my PRS Artist II, I wasn't a huge fan of the pickups in it, and wanted to put in a set of PAFs. I found a set, but I ended up realizing that the pickups were only one part of the guitar's gestalt, and that I was better off with the PRS pickups in the instrument. I'm actually glad I did that, because I cut some really nice tracks with that guitar, (with the PRS pickups it came with) and it had a unique voice! It also had more sustain than the PAFs, something I like.

    When PRS came out with the 57/08, I was thrilled, not because it was identical to a PAF - it isn't - but because it gave me the part of the PAF voice I liked, the openness and clarity, and the range of useful volume and tone that could be controlled with the knobs, while at the same time sounding a bit more full-range. It's a pickup that serves the instruments it comes with very nicely. There's also a bit more sustain with the 57/08 than with a real, original, PAF.

    I want to emphasize that - a pickup doesn't stand on its own, it becomes part of a greater whole. A lot of players don't seem to realize that, and install the strangest darn things in their instruments! Sometimes they work, and sometimes I just scratch my head and wonder what that person was thinking. Then again, the beauty of an instrument is that it becomes one's voice for self-expression, so it ain't my call what someone else puts in their guitar.

    So...how did PAF become a standard? I think instruments become a standard when good players use them to make records we listen to; after all, that's how most of us first hear them! The ear becomes accustomed to certain sounds it hears over and over, and the sounds become part of the musical vernacular. It's not as though the pickups and guitars play themselves!

    Musicians we admire for their ability and tone use something, we hear it over and over, and it becomes ingrained in our memories. We then set those kinds of tones as a standard of comparison. Those tones become iconic. There's your answer as to how things become a standard.

    If we'd heard only Kay guitars and pickups on those same records, my guess is they'd have become the standard (and if you've ever played a vintage Kay, let's just say I'm thankful they didn't)!
    Last edited by LSchefman; 04-09-2014 at 10:11 AM.
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    As I was writing the OP, I was thinking in the back of my mind about some of the variables Les brings up. At this point, the original PAFs are aged. No one knows what that brings to discussion. As Les points out, even if you had a PAF that in it's day was the best of the example, there is no way for us to know if it sounds the same now as it did then - even if we possessed it ourselves for all those years.

    I know that my hearing is vastly different from what it was when I was a teenager, before I started playing a set regularly.

    Yes, we have examples that we can still listen to: recordings by great players using instruments and gear that they (hopefully) carefully selected for the tones they wanted. But even that isn't the yardstick we think it is. The all analogue recording at the time onto tape with tubes in almost every circuit might be closely emulated by electronic savants today, but will never be reproduced without using the same equipment down to the studio acoustics, mics, cables and tape brands.

    Most of us listen to these examples on equipment that may or may not reproduce the original recordings accurately. I have a pair of McIntosh speakers made a few decades ago - they weigh over 100 lbs each. But unless I break out the vinyl - I'm still not hearing the tones of my youth, as good as the McIntoshes are.

    There are soooo many variables.

    I submit that when chasing the tones of our influences we do exactly that and think about it this way - chase the actual tone. What we really should be saying is that we're looking for the tone Page had on Houses of the Holy, not whatever specific guitar or pup or amp he used to record it in whatever studio using whatever equipment.

    To me the PAF isn't magic. What people did with the PAF (and ALL the other gear they were using) is where the magic is.
    Thbbbbbt...
    Check it out: Phillybri used to have a band: Resonance But he's soooo over them now!

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  5. #5
    To me PAF is just a name for a guide line for a pickup that's clear with good highs and bass. In a way it's a name to differentiate them from the Super Distortions that I used to use. So no magic.

  6. #6
    Les I also was around at the time paf's were the rage, but through time I have learned that what you play should come from your heart ,whAtever guitar you choose to play will become your signature,I love all pickups I think prs makes the finest pickups today.Case in point my friend jammed with my band and brought out a reissue gold top with paf's that he paid he said 6000.00 for I believe him because he has more money than he could spend.So I played a trick on him and told him the neck pickup on my Bernie was a paf.After the gig he wanted to buy my pickup, I had to tell him it was a Seymour Duncan antiquity his jaw dropped he put his guitar away and left very disappointed.moral of the story use what you like play from your heart and enjoy life.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Bluesboy998 View Post
    Les I also was around at the time paf's were the rage, but through time I have learned that what you play should come from your heart ,whAtever guitar you choose to play will become your signature.
    This.
    If something is too hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your short-wave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bluesboy998 View Post
    I played a trick on him and told him the neck pickup on my Bernie was a paf.After the gig he wanted to buy my pickup, I had to tell him it was a Seymour Duncan antiquity his jaw dropped he put his guitar away and left very disappointed.
    This.

    Kinda my point. The legend creates its own illusions.
    Thbbbbbt...
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  9. #9
    Or in many cases, marketing creates the legend and illusions.

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    Not having heard, or known I was hearing, PAFs in person, people's evaluations saying this pup or that one sounds like a vintage PAF is meaningless to me. That is, beyond the assumption that they are pleased with what they are hearing.

    It would be much more useful to me for people to say the tone is close to what they hear or remember when So And So played the song Such And Such. At least then I could hunt down the recording and get an idea what they are on about.
    Thbbbbbt...
    Check it out: Phillybri used to have a band: Resonance But he's soooo over them now!

    ¡sɹǝqɯǝɯ uɐıןɐɹʇsnɐ oןןǝɥ

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    My take is that just because a guitar or its pickups are old does not mean it is good. I've played old guitars that were fantastic, and I've also played ones that were dogs. Same for new guitars.
    I think you have to just play them and evaluate each on its own merits, including the individual pickups, which may or may not be any good or may be good in one guitar and awful in another. There is no magic in a PAF.

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    I do not disagree with anything stated above, but it only covers part of the questions in the OP. Case in point, I do believe we can qualify the Seth Lover from Duncan as the only true to the original PAF, and therefore an excellent representation of what they sound like. They are still made like the original, but more consistent. It is not accurate to say the PAF is not available anymore. Seth Lover made the PAF, and before his death, signed on with Duncan to make the PAF Seth Lover. He did this in response to the PAF fever and the fact that he was denied by Gibson, his proper revenue. Duncan made and still makes the Seth Lover pickups to his specs without profiting a single cent on them. Never have! The profits go directly to Seth's widow as Seth and Seymour intended. To go to the nostalgia BS, folks want to dismiss the Seth Lover Pup because it did not originally reside in a vintage Gibson. Talk about denial and overlooking facts. The fact is the Original PAF has never gone away, just kept hanging on by the desire of it's inventor. All others should be judged by the Seth Lover. Why folks cannot grasp this I don't know? Perhaps it rocks the cradle of their vintage ideology and cannot except the original has never left us. The fact the Seth Lover is a best seller and sounds great, supports the whole holy/unholy grail talk. It is the PAF!

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    Quote Originally Posted by rugerpc View Post
    Not having heard, or known I was hearing, PAFs in person, people's evaluations saying this pup or that one sounds like a vintage PAF is meaningless to me. That is, beyond the assumption that they are pleased with what they are hearing.

    It would be much more useful to me for people to say the tone is close to what they hear or remember when So And So played the song Such And Such. At least then I could hunt down the recording and get an idea what they are on about.
    I am assuming your post here is in response to my earlier response. If, so I dont get what you mean. I do not know about others, their are to many variables in recording to that the pups are what you are hearing and not caps, pots, wiring, mics, room, strings, the list goes on and on as ya'll know. Afterall, it is in the heart and soul and fingertips that make the sound. Any recording artists guitar could have been manipulated in a thousand ways to get a certain tone and it is very presumptious to assume it it a virgin PAF without knowing for certain. I am not buying it is PAF tone, unless i know for sure. Chances are that is not happening for any of us. Listening to a recording is not enough to know or qualify the PAF as authentic, much less being responsible for enough of the sound to attach it to a PAF pup. Knowing and looking at a guitar being played in front of you that has original PAFs and stock wiring is. Then you know you are hearing the true PAF.

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    Quote Originally Posted by rugerpc View Post
    Not having heard, or known I was hearing, PAFs in person, people's evaluations saying this pup or that one sounds like a vintage PAF is meaningless to me. That is, beyond the assumption that they are pleased with what they are hearing.

    It would be much more useful to me for people to say the tone is close to what they hear or remember when So And So played the song Such And Such. At least then I could hunt down the recording and get an idea what they are on about.
    Quote Originally Posted by Audie View Post
    I am assuming your post here is in response to my earlier response. If, so I dont get what you mean. I do not know about others, their are to many variables in recording to that the pups are what you are hearing and not caps, pots, wiring, mics, room, strings, the list goes on and on as ya'll know. Afterall, it is in the heart and soul and fingertips that make the sound. Any recording artists guitar could have been manipulated in a thousand ways to get a certain tone and it is very presumptious to assume it it a virgin PAF without knowing for certain. I am not buying it is PAF tone, unless i know for sure. Chances are that is not happening for any of us. Listening to a recording is not enough to know or qualify the PAF as authentic, much less being responsible for enough of the sound to attach it to a PAF pup. Knowing and looking at a guitar being played in front of you that has original PAFs and stock wiring is. Then you know you are hearing the true PAF.
    No, I wasn't replying specifically to your post, Audie. I was lamenting a bit of what you write above. I have no personal PAF benchmarks. I have seen so few videos of the older music that I love, so I have no idea what gear was in use.

    And I'm ever mindful of the variables involved. Even a really accurate and well made video would not tell us the specs of the entire signal chain from strings to tape. That is why statements like "it's really PAFy" are lost on me.

    "It sounds like B B King on 'The Thrill is Gone'" would be a much more useful evaluation for me.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Audie View Post
    I do not disagree with anything stated above, but it only covers part of the questions in the OP. Case in point, I do believe we can qualify the Seth Lover from Duncan as the only true to the original PAF, and therefore an excellent representation of what they sound like. They are still made like the original, but more consistent. It is not accurate to say the PAF is not available anymore. Seth Lover made the PAF, and before his death, signed on with Duncan to make the PAF Seth Lover. He did this in response to the PAF fever and the fact that he was denied by Gibson, his proper revenue. Duncan made and still makes the Seth Lover pickups to his specs without profiting a single cent on them. Never have! The profits go directly to Seth's widow as Seth and Seymour intended. To go to the nostalgia BS, folks want to dismiss the Seth Lover Pup because it did not originally reside in a vintage Gibson. Talk about denial and overlooking facts. The fact is the Original PAF has never gone away, just kept hanging on by the desire of it's inventor. All others should be judged by the Seth Lover. Why folks cannot grasp this I don't know? Perhaps it rocks the cradle of their vintage ideology and cannot except the original has never left us. The fact the Seth Lover is a best seller and sounds great, supports the whole holy/unholy grail talk. It is the PAF!

    Well....this is one hell of an argument!

    You've convinced me!

    All these years, I just figured Duncan used the Seth Lover name---like a "consultant"...the same way PRS worked with Ted McCarty. Knowing that Duncan winds them as per Lover's design, then yeah...these would be the "standard".

    In another thought...it was mentioned before, basically, time and distance makes all our memories happier. I think back to my first electric...a shitbox Japanese El Degas Les Paul copy. My memory told me it would sustain for hours and it was a breeze to play. I found one on eBay, and bought it. What a piece of junk.

    My point...we all evolve...our tastes, and what we, as players, "hear" or want to hear. There's nothing g wrong with that. In fact...it's that evolution that keeps us playing and never happy. It helps is battle complacency and being comfortable.

    Excellent thread!! Thanks

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by Audie View Post
    I do believe we can qualify the Seth Lover from Duncan as the only true to the original PAF, and therefore an excellent representation of what they sound like. They are still made like the original, but more consistent. It is not accurate to say the PAF is not available anymore.
    Well, this may or may not be the case, since there are folks who have gone so far as to have metallurgists examine the composition of the wire and metal parts, and who claim to go further to duplicate what was available in the 50s than Duncan has gone. There is no mystery to the design of a humbucking pickup. It's not like Seth Lover had some deep dark secret to the humbucking pickup. The patent application contains all the details.

    Quote Originally Posted by Audie View Post
    Seth Lover made the PAF, and before his death, signed on with Duncan to make the PAF Seth Lover. He did this in response to the PAF fever and the fact that he was denied by Gibson, his proper revenue.
    Actually, Seth Lover was employed by Gibson to design the pickups. The revenue for such a design goes to the employer but the employee signs a written agreement to the employer relating to the patent. The patent application is also in the name of the employee, with the assignment to the employer listed. Same with individuals who are hired by a company to work on a specific thing for the company on a per-project basis. Thus it is also true for a "commissioned invention" as it is for an employee hired to invent a specific product.

    This understanding is very basic to patent law, and in fact has been the case since at least the Civil War.

    It is similar to copyright law in the case of a "work made for hire," only in the case of the copyright law there is no written assignment or release required; in that case, the law operates automatically. Why does this make sense?

    The thinking behind it is that companies are encouraged to hire people to invent things, to pay them salaries for lengthy periods of time, to make significant investment in laboratories and research, in some cases tens of millions of dollars, which constitute risk, to achieve the rewards of the things they invent. This kind of investment would not take place if the company taking this risk did not ultimately own the patent.

    And frankly, the world would not be better off. Imagine companies not being encouraged to do research into medicines, computers, aerospace, automobiles, and other modern products!!! The ownership of the patent, and the right to profit from it, is the carrot at the end of the stick for investors and companies who engage in research!

    Does anyone think for even ten seconds that some guy in his garage or basement has the equipment and investment necessary to create something like a sophisticated new breakthrough in biologics? Medicine? To create something like an MRI?

    This is why Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar, doesn't own the patent for the product she was paid to discover in her experiments, DuPont does. You don't hear her bitching about it, either. She loved working for DuPont and appreciated the reward of not having to invest in a lab, create a marketing team, raise capital, etc., that individual inventors not backed by companies are forced to do.

    And to be paid a salary while she was free to work on her ideas.

    Same goes for a huge number of other products. Inventors need jobs and time to create their inventions. Companies need inventions to spur their trade and commerce, and it is obvious that they need to own the inventions they pay people to experiment on.

    It's a two-way street.

    Most patents in the 20th and 21st centuries have gone to companies who are paying the employee a salary in exchange for their work, and not to the individual employees of the company who actually create the patentable item. And most patents do not go to individual inventors.

    Seth Lover was not somehow ripped off by Gibson. And at some point he obviously had the right to reproduce his design for Duncan despite Gibson's patent.

    The fact that Seymour Duncan licensed Seth Lover's name to sell pickups and to allow the man and his heirs to profit off his design is a very nice, and gentlemanly, thing to do. I admire that. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that was somehow necessary to replicate the PAF in every detail.

    To anyone who thinks this is unfair, imagine a movie, an art form that requires the collaboration of hundreds of individuals, many of whom create original works for use in the film. Scripts, set design, film shooters, makeup artists, musicians, and many others, all creating original works that are subject to the copyright laws.

    Now imagine if in addition to paying these people, the film makers had to pay them copyright royalties as additional costs every time they ran the film. This would literally be required.

    Forget for the moment the monumental accounting nightmare, you have teams of folks collaborating in different ways, and they'd all sue each other and the film company over it. Films would be so expensive to show that making them would be nearly impossible, and a lot of people would be out of work.

    As a practical matter, the "work for hire" provisions of laws like this make things like films, television productions, radio productions, magazines, newspapers, for-profit blogs, and many other ventures possible and practical. Same with records, because it goes beyond writer and publisher; the recording of a creative work is a separate creative work. Who'd own it? The engineer? Gosh, that would be great, my son would make as much as 30 Seconds to Mars for their most recent record! Wooo! Hey, it makes sense to me...

    The same is true for companies who want to come out with new and improved products.

    I'll get off my soapbox now, but it always amazes me that people buy into the idea that there is some kind of grand conspiracy to deprive guys who create products for companies of their just desserts. Because clearly they have not given serious consideration to what is necessary for a business to actually operate and innovate.
    Last edited by LSchefman; 04-09-2014 at 07:59 PM.
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  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by LSchefman View Post
    The thinking behind it is that companies are encouraged to hire people to invent things, to pay them salaries for lengthy periods of time, to invest in laboratories, which constitute risk, to achieve the rewards of the things they invent.
    I'm sticking with fairy dust making old PAF pickups magical and unique.

  18. #18
    Not sure if anyone remembers but a lot of us in the 70's weren't enamored with the PAF sound in the bridge and went with Dimarzio Super Distortions and such. Maybe the magic was hiding in a enchanted forest back then.

  19. #19
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    What Les is on about is called "work product." I was going to post much of what Les added in his edits, but he saved me the trouble.

    But I think he is right on his other points as well. Duncan may still be marketing their version of the PAF, but how do we know the modern materials and more consistent QC aren't actually robbing those pups of the vaunted magic?

    I'm still not convinced that PAFs deserve to be the yardstick that they have become, but even I gotta go with the notion that a modern "equivalent" is probably not he same as the best of the vintage example.

    And it still doesn't solve my problem. I, personally, don't have the PAF benchmark engrained into my head. And there seems to be little hope of changing that given the rarity of the beast and its moving target specs.
    Last edited by rugerpc; 04-09-2014 at 08:30 PM.
    Thbbbbbt...
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  20. #20
    I *do* have the PAF benchmark ingrained into my head, because I have a couple of old Gibsons with PAFs. The guitars (and, I'm sure, the pickups) sound quite different from each other although there's a characteristic "old Gibson" thing that both guitars have.

    Describing what the "magic" is all about is tricky. One of the best I've heard is that "good PAFs simply give you more information to work with."

    Which is great, but you sorta hafta consider the whole signal chain, from your head to your fingers to your guitar to whatever all is between your guitar and your amp, to your amp, to your speaker(s). By and large, if you want to get the best out of PAFs (or, really, any PAF-like pickup), less is more in terms of the whole signal chain. Less stuff (i.e. pedals), less gain, less coloration from your speakers. What you want MORE from is your hands/fingers and your imagination.

    The other thing that happens in a good old PAF guitar has to do with how the pickups and all the electronics interact. With my old PAF Les Paul, just by working the volume & tone controls (again assuming the right sort of amp set the right way, ideally with only a good cable between guitar & amp), I can get a whole range of sounds, from corpulent and nasty to thin, biting, and funky. And, everywhere on all of the dials, it sounds alive and vibrant. That's the kind of thing that you won't ever get from listening to a record or probably from seeing one played live by someone else.

    I know Paul Smith gets this, because I've talked to him about it. The behavior of the guitar as you work the volume & tone knobs has ALWAYS been a big deal to him. I will also say that the 57/08s are about my favorite "PAF style" pickups, and they come pretty darned close to nailing that sound, vibe, and behavior.

    So here you go. No PRS in this one, but here's a video in which I play a modern Les Paul recipe guitar with modern "PAF-type" pickups then I play the aforementioned vintage PAF Les Paul. Of course you will have no idea what's the guitar and what's the pickups, but it might give you a bit of a feel for what an old guitar with PAFs can sound like and how that compares to an excellent (IMO anyway) modern version of that model.


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